Though Hilary Mantel’s story opens on the road, in the ‘dank, oily days after Christmas’, there are no guiding stars, nor wise men, no sightings of gentle Jesus, nor virgins or stables, though there is a garden shed in which a character later does away with himself, which I suppose can be seen as a kind of nativity in reverse.
Alison and Colette spend much of their time ‘driving round the junctions of the M25 or the corridors of the M3 and M4′, going from one engagement to the next. Alison is a medium; not a medium medium, but a very large, even a colossal medium: ‘she seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn’t in it.’ Having discovered as a child that she could commune with the dead, she comes to follow in the tradition of the now translated Mrs Doris Stokes. But where Mrs Stokes might have had the fairy-cakes and the paper-doilies, Alison has fiends. While other mediums might have as spirit-guides ‘distinguished impassive medicine men or ancient Persian sages’, Alison has the disgusting Morris, with whom she is stuck, and who it appears never had a Christian burial, ‘but concrete boots and a dip in the river, or maybe he was sawn up with his own saw.’ In addition to her fiend Morris, Alison has Colette, a business-manager, who is also her dresser and driver, and a latent psychic herself. To be precise, Alison is known as a ‘sensitive’. That is, ‘her senses were arranged in a different way from the senses of most people.’ A medium and a clairvoyant, Alison is not by nature a fortune teller, ‘but it was hard to make people understand that.’
As Alison’s manager, the meticulously business-minded Colette rebrands her, gives her a make-over, suggests branching into new territories, and encourages her to write a book. Colette begins to record Alison’s life in interviews that are to be the basis of this book. From these interviews, it emerges that Alison has experienced the most horrific of childhoods. Her visits from ‘spirit world’ are a walk in the park compared to the hideous events involving ‘men, a big van and dogs that would chew your face off’, and the worst kind of neglect and mistreatment. ‘And in those days they didn’t have sexual abuse, so nobody believed me.’ As they play the tapes back, they realise Alison’s fiends have also dropped in for the recording sessions, leaving obscenities and snarlings and what sounds likes Polish spoken very fast, and backwards. ‘At some point on your road you have to turn and start walking back towards yourself. Or the past will pursue you and bite the nape of your neck, leave you bleeding in the ditch. Better to turn and face it with such weapons as you possess.’ But for Alison, particularly as a medium, the past, present and future seem all to be the same – walking away from her past, she is also walking towards it. Eventually she liberates herself from Morris and Colette. Driving off not into the sunset, but ‘in the autumn’s first foul weather’, for this is England in October, Alison makes her getaway, with her new spirit-guides, a car-load of them, ‘to Sevenoaks, by way of Junction 5.’
Though certainly not a comfortable story, Beyond Black is brilliantly written. From Hilary Mantel we have come to expect nothing less. When not writing about ‘spirit world’, but focusing herself ‘earthside’, Mantel portrays an England a few years either side of the millennium with descriptive writing that rivals Dickens at his best. This is the England of ‘marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud. It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred with bottle and burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs. The life forms here are rejects, or anomalies: the cats tipped from speeding cars, and the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel.’ A vision of hell, earthside. Not the parts of Merrie England that tourists come to visit, but huge tranches of the country where ordinary people are condemned to live. This is where most of Alison’s ‘clients, the punters, the trade’ dwell – where ‘on slow nights, all she receives is the confused distant chit-chat that comes from the world of the dead’, for the ‘dead won’t be coaxed and they won’t be coerced.’
Mantel’s descriptions are as much moral as they are physical, ‘there are mudslips and landslides, there are storm drains burst, a glugging and gurgling in sumps, conduits and wells. There are fissures in the river beds, there are marshes, swamps and bogs, there are cracked pipes and breached sea walls … there is coastal erosion, crumbling defences, spillage and seepages … there the oceans are rising half a metre, half a metre, half a metre onwards.’ This can be seen as a description of the whole of the UK and the chronic neglect of its infrastructure. A bleak political description, as much as it is literary.
But there is also a good deal that is comic in Beyond Black. ‘Al had found a woman’s father, in spirit world. Your daddy’s still keeping an eye on you, she cooed. The woman jumped to her feet … Tell the old sod to stuff himself. Happiest day of my life when that old fucker popped his clogs … I’m here for my boyfriend that was killed in a pile-up on the sodding M25. Al said, there’s often a lot of anger when someone passes. It’s natural. Natural?, the girl said. There was nothing natural about that fucker. If I hear anymore about my bastard dad, I’ll see you outside and sort you out.
I am tempted to describe Beyond Black as a kind of a voodoo novel, because it almost is. Hilary Mantel chooses for the epigraph those now famous words attributed to HM the Queen, which she allegedly uttered to royal butler Paul Burrell following the death of her former daughter-in-law: ‘there are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.’
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel is published by HarperPerennial (ISBN 0007157762 PBK £7.99)
© Michael Lister 2005